Glendening sets limits, trims blue crab season

Watermen object to rules on their take, early end of harvest

`On verge of collapse'

April 28, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, angered that legislators rejected regulations designed to cut Maryland's blue crab harvest, said that yesterday he will impose the rules nonetheless and will shorten the commercial crabbing season as well.

The governor said regulations limiting the hours watermen can work will take effect July 23 - the earliest date the administration can act without legislative approval.

To make up for the rules not taking effect right away, Glendening said he is closing the crab season at the beginning of November, a month early.

"We know that Maryland's blue crab industry is on the verge of collapse," Glendening said. "These regulations must be implemented to preserve the industry, the watermen's livelihood and a Maryland tradition."

Administration officials said the two actions would reduce the crab harvest by 5.5 percent this year, the original goal.

Maryland and Virginia agreed in December to reduce their crab harvests by 15 percent over the next three years to help preserve the $150 million-a-year industry.

During this year's legislative session, Maryland's General Assembly adopted a system of licenses for recreational crabbers and limited their harvests.

But a legislative committee voted this week to reject regulations that would limit commercial crabbers to an eight-hour workday and require them to take off one day a week.

The 6-4 vote by the Administrative Executive Legislative Review Committee came after a coalition of Lower Eastern Shore watermen and seafood packers said the rules were unnecessary and would drive them out of business.

With the committee's approval, the restrictions could have gone into effect immediately. Instead, they will take effect halfway into the crabbing season.

Environmentalists who had lobbied for the regulations were relieved by Glendening's announcement.

"I'm happy to see some leadership on an issue as critical as this," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "All of the scientific data indicate that a harvest reduction is critical to restoring the fishery."

Coalition sees danger

But opponents were angered, especially by the decision to shorten the season.

"At that time of the year, crabs are migrating south, and any crabs not caught in Maryland will be caught in Virginia. He's just transferring the seafood business to Virginia," said Terry Conway of the Blue Crab Conservation Coalition, a group of watermen and seafood packers, about Glendening's order.

Virginia sets own limits

Even as Maryland legislators were resisting efforts to curb the harvest, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission adopted new regulations Tuesday designed to cut that state's crab harvest by at least 6 percent this year.

The commission closed the crab pot and peeler pot fishery for six Wednesdays from June to August, a second day a week off.

It also reduced the daily catch limit in the winter dredge fishery from 20 to 17 barrels a day and limited recreational crabbers to one bushel of hard crabs and two dozen peelers a day.

It is the first time limits have been imposed on recreational crabbers in Virginia.

Since October 1994, Virginia has taken 17 different actions to cut its crab harvest, including creating large sanctuaries, limiting the number of commercial crab licenses and reducing the amount of gear commercial crabbers can use.

`It was totally arbitrary'

Faced with steadily declining crab stocks, a committee of 27 scientists concluded that the crab harvest must be cut by 15 percent to avoid a population crash.

The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee - composed of legislators, fisheries regulators, commercial seafood interests and environmentalists from both states - adopted a plan to reduce the harvest and double the spawning stock over three years.

But Conway and other members of his group have complained there was "no science" supporting the plan.

"It was totally arbitrary," he said.

A scientific committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program endorsed the two-state plan.

The committee said this week that the plan is "founded on sound scientific information and analysis."

And yesterday, a committee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that monitors the Chesapeake crab population issued a report warning that one significant environmental event, such as a hurricane or a flood, could "trigger a collapse."

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